I commend my colleague Christopher Hawthorne for his recent column in Architectural Record assessing the impact of architectural blogs. It's not all negative: he praises the richness, variety, and energy of criticism on the web. But he also calls blog criticism “wildly uneven” pointing out that online design writing is often “overlong,” “prone to self-absorption,” and in need of an editor.
I agree, but my biggest problem with architecture blogs is the extreme brevity of the work and, by extension, its lack of journalistic rigor. (Disclaimer: I blog, AN blogs, and we can all be charged with the above offenses.)
Blogs by their nature tend to take a simplistic, scattered view of the world. How can one really investigate a topic, or provide any nuance or reflection, in a few lines? It’s rarely journalism. Most are links from other stories, while the “original” reporting is often copied straight from press releases.
One architect I know shared a story of how he once posted pictures online of a complete home renovation and remodel. But the pictures that got picked up and circulated were of the original—very ugly—house. No one bothered to check which house was the subject under discussion.
Countless times I’ve seen blog posts that confirm stories as true without any verification. Be it Norman Foster designing a new Silicon Valley headquarters for Apple (quoting an unnamed source from a Spanish-language newspaper with no confirmation from Apple or Foster), or news that plans had been unveiled for a new plaza at LA’s Broad Museum (they were just conceptual renderings). Here’s an idea: If you don’t know if a story is true, say so by citing the original source.
Blogs also fetishize the image, already a big problem in architectural journalism. As on every site when we post on our blog, the zoomier images inevitably get the most views and re-tweets. I call it archi-porn. It’s the same as pictures of sexy women getting the most hits on the Huffington Post. Also gossip and snarkiness trump vital news, getting the most hits and the most shares. Time after time, they win the day.
The real question is do people care about in-depth reporting? Or is the obsession with the quantity, gossip, and sexy imagery all that matters? In the past, plenty of architecture magazines dealt primarily in images, but when that proclivity is combined with unchecked words, the result is a serious dumbing-down of the subject. With the least reporting grabbing the most audiences, the end of intelligent information exchange seems at hand.
I’m not calling for a blog boycott. Blogs are a vital source of some information and, as Hawthorne pointed out, an important way to keep reporters and critics honest. They open up a once closed field to everybody and provide us with much more information and color than we ever got before. As dubious as the content can be, if you don’t blog you’re not part of the conversation. But they must not replace old-fashioned reporting and a focus on substance over drama. They need to be held to a higher standard. How do we vote on that? With our clicks of course.